The pandemic-driven exodus from downtown offices in exchange for home offices has left many buildings empty or underused — and ripe for conversion to much-needed residential housing that’s both affordable and carbon-friendly.
The workplace, reimagined
- The pandemic has altered work habits, and it now appears the office commute is a relic of the past
- With many office towers empty and many cities in need of housing, a push is underway to repurpose office space for residential use
- Cities are enacting legislation to incentivize conversions
- The endgame? More affordable housing with less carbon footprint
The future of the workplace in the post-pandemic era remains very much an unresolved debate. Some employers have begun to mandate a return to the office. Some, like tech giant Apple, have instituted a partial return. Other companies, Shopify for example, have wholeheartedly embraced remote work and the flexibility it entails and have happily pocketed the savings of a reduced brick-and-mortar footprint.
The one thing that does seem clear is that the status quo of the pre-pandemic workplace is no longer a given. Forbes recently cited a survey of HR leaders that said just four percent of businesses are requiring all employees to return to the workplace full-time. Bottom line: It’s no longer automatic that everyone gets up and commutes to a fixed office.
And so, if we agree that things will never return to the way they were, the question remains: What becomes of all that unused office space?
Several cities have begun exploring an answer, putting in place the legal and regulatory changes that are necessary for developers, architects, and builders to consider transforming office towers into residential housing.
Doing so is smart policy, particularly with so much office space now vacant. Cities need more affordable housing, and converting a building is cheaper than building new. The RAND Center on Housing and Homelessness in Los Angeles says that construction for adaptive reuse projects cost, on average, around US$340,000 per unit, 48 percent less than new construction projects (US$164,000 less per unit).
And the carbon footprint savings when converting an existing building rather than building a new one is considerable – consider 35 percent of an office tower’s lifecycle
carbon is emitted during construction, a figure that climbs to 51 percent for a residential building, according to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.
The City of Los Angeles was among the first to see the upside of adaptive reuse and in 1999 began making the legislative changes needed to create incentives for conversion. Many other U.S. cities have since begun to do the same. Chicago, Washington, D.C., Alexandria, Virginia, L.A., and Cleveland are now the top five cities in the nation for the number of embarked-upon office conversions since 2020.
In Canada, the City of Calgary in 2021 announced a plan to spend nearly $1 billion over ten years to spur office conversion. In the U.K., London aims to turn empty offices into 1,500 apartments by 2030.
The conversion of office to residential use opens up the opportunity to retrofit those buildings with the latest in carbon-saving technologies and building materials and to bring those buildings into line with modern lighting, water use, and other environmental and ergonomic standards.
And of course residences rather than offices will help drive density and efficient land use and will make downtowns more livable, with the presence of people extended beyond office hours, people who in turn will attract the small businesses and restaurants that fuel local micro-economies.
All of it makes far more sense than leaving an office tower idle and empty in the (now unlikely) post-pandemic hope that people will once again commute to their workplace.
The office, and the home office, are ideas undergoing some significant renovation.
Trusscore: Transforming residential construction
Trusscore products are ideal for office tower retrofits and any adaptive reuse project.
Durable, impact-resistant, and long-lasting Trusscore Wall&CeilingBoard is perfect for high-traffic common areas like hallways and garbage and recycling rooms. Trusscore SlatWall combines seamlessly with Trusscore Wall&CeilingBoard to create wall-based storage, ideal for laundry rooms, storage areas, and any area that requires flexible, space-saving storage.
Because they’re made from PVC, Trusscore Wall&CeilingBoard and Trusscore SlatWall are impervious to water, making them particularly well-suited in damp or wet spaces.
And all Trusscore products are bright, easy to clean, resistant to chemicals, and won’t support the growth of mold or mildew.
When it comes time to retrofit your office tower for residential use, Trusscore has you covered.